Unemployment in the United States: 1928-1933 (Classroom Activity)

Although less than 1% of the American people actually possessed stocks and shares, the Wall Street Crash was to have a tremendous impact on the whole population. The fall in share prices made it difficult for entrepreneurs to raise the money needed to run their companies. Within a short time 100,000 American companies were forced to close and consequently many workers became unemployed. As there was no national system of unemployment benefit, the purchasing power of the American people fell dramatically. This in turn led to even more unemployment.

In 1929 only 1.5 million people in the U.S.A. were out of work; by 1931 it had reached 8 million. In many areas the situation was even worse than these figures imply. In industrial cities like Chicago, for example, over 40% of the work-force was unemployed.

At first President Herbert Hoover refused to take action, claiming that it was only a temporary problem that American businessmen would eventually solve. In 1930 he attempted to give businessmen some help by raising custom duties to record levels. Europe retaliated by increasing its custom duties and this resulted in a further decline in world trade.
By 1932 the number of people unemployed reached 12 million. America was in a deep depression and the Hoover administration seemed to have little idea how to solve it.

Primary Sources

(Source 1) Photograph of unemployed man in Detroit (c. 1930)
(Source 1) Photograph of unemployed man in Detroit (c. 1930)


(Source 2) Karl Monroe, The Nation Magazine (April, 1930)

I stood in the breadline in Twenty-fifth Street, where the women's section of the Socialist Party daily distributed soup, coffee, and bread. To my surprise, I found in the line all types of men - the majority being skilled craftsmen unable to work. One of them told me he had been a civil engineer and had earned $8,000 a year. Since losing his job almost a year ago, he had drifted from bad to worse, occasionally picking up odd jobs, until he had sunk to the breadline ... there are many men who still hope despite months of failure. Of a dozen men in the park at nights, at least eight will tell you that they have something in mind for the following day, and they actually convince themselves. A few nights later a casual search will reveal the same men, still with "something in mind for tomorrow". For most of them that tomorrow is many months ahead. Perhaps it will never come. In the meantime, they read, under the arc light in the park, in second-hand newspapers, predictions that business will be normal again in sixty days.

(Source 3) Photograph of unemployed man with "Wanted Urgently" placard (c. 1930)
(Source 3) Photograph of unemployed man with "Wanted Urgently" placard (c. 1930)

(Source 4) Edmund Wilson, New Republic (February, 1933)

There is not a garbage-dump in Chicago which is not diligently haunted by the hungry. Last summer the hot weather when the smell was sickening and the flies were thick, there were a hundred people a day coming to one of the dumps ... a widow who used to do housework and laundry, but now had no work at all, fed herself and her fourteen-year-old son on garbage. Before she picked up the meat, she would always take off her glasses so that she couldn't see the maggots.

(Source 5) Photograph of unemployed man in Brooklyn (c. 1930)
(Source 5) Photograph of unemployed man in Brooklyn (c. 1930)

(Source 6) Clifford Burke, teamster, New York City, interviewed by Studs Terkel in Hard Times (1970)

The negro was born in depression. It didn't mean too much to him, "The Great Depression" as you call it. There was no such thing. The best he could be is a janitor or a porter or shoeshine boy. It (the depression) only became official when it hit the white man.... The American white man has been superior so long, he can't figure out why he should come down.

(Source 7) Unemployment in the United States (1928-1933)
















(Source 8) Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a magazine published by the National Urban League (February, 1931)

The family came to New York 30 years ago. Eddie, the oldest son, who is 23, was employed in a paint and supply store up to June, when he was laid off. Margaret, age 20, lost her job in a hat factory that closed down in September. Two children are in high school and two in elementary school. The rent, $65 per month, is four months in arrears, with eviction threatened. When visited the children had been out of school, as they were without shoes and suitable clothing.

(Source 9) "Why can't you give my dad a job?" (c. 1932)
(Source 9) "Why can't you give my dad a job?" (c. 1932)

(Source 10) Will Rogers, speech (November, 1931)

There is not an unemployed man in the country that hasn't contributed to the wealth of every millionaire in America. The working classes didn't bring this on, it was the big boys.... We got more wheat, more corn, more food, more cotton, more money in the banks, more everything in the world than any nation that ever lived, ever had, yet we are starving to death. We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile.
Will Rogers, speech, (November, 1931)

(Source 11) Photograph taken in Georgia (1935)
(Source 11) Photograph taken in Georgia (1935)
Questions for Students

Question 1: Study source 2 and explain what is meant by "There are many men who still hope despite months of failure."

Question 2: Why did the woman mentioned in source 4 take off her glasses before eating her food?

Question 3: What did Clifford Burke mean when he said the depression only became official when it hit the white man"?

Question 4: What do the photographs in this unit tell you about unemployment in the United States in the earl 1930s?

Question 5: Explain whether you agree or disagree with the points made by Will Rogers in source 10.

Question 6: Can you explain why the Wall Street Crash of 1929 did not appear to have affected the unemployment figures for that year.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.